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Wed 22 Dec 2010 12:00 AM

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Moving on

Nostalgia alone should not drive contemporary design.

Moving on

It is difficult for anyone to move forward without knowing
where they came from, and cities are much the same. While it is important to
preserve our architectural heritage, we must understand the drivers that
influenced their design, and gave old structures their shape.

Many efforts are underway across the MENA region to preserve
and restore historic buildings and neighborhoods. One major and ambitious plan
in Cairo, led
by the General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP), is targeting the
historic downtown.

Meanwhile, the Architectural Heritage Department of Dubai
Municipality has also executed restorations of several buildings, particularly
in the historic Bastakiyya district. It documented all the components that make
up the architecture of old Dubai
buildings in a number of publications.

These restoration efforts provide us with a window into our
past, and give the historic structures a second lease on life. But perhaps more
importantly, it is by restoring these structures that we have an invaluable
opportunity to learn how these buildings responded to the climate and our

I’m not suggesting that we design buildings today that look
like ones from our past. That would be nostalgic, and inappropriate for the
world we live in today. We must move on.

But it is only by understanding how these historic buildings
performed, and by capturing the essence of their structure and architecture,
that we can develop processes and forward looking ‘styles’ that are fit for our
world and that address our needs today, while responding responsibly to the

Modern building design in the region probably falls into two
categories: one that ignores the heritage of a culture altogether, parachuting
designs better suited for another culture; and another that is nostalgic and
historicist forcing the use of a set of building blocks from past architecture
and imitating historical designs. Neither one is suitable today. Historical
buildings look the way they do because they were a direct response to the
climate and the local customs.

Central Market in Abu
Dhabi is an excellent example of how contemporary
design can capture the essence of the culture and the climate without being
nostalgic and kitschy.

The design does not use the familiar architectural building
blocks, that some advocate in order to develop an architecture that speaks for
the heritage of the place, and yet there is something undeniably regional and
contemporary about it. Diffused lighting, narrow ‘lanes’, and modern
mashrabiyya-like screens, all create this seemingly regionally rooted look and

Historic preservation is just that. It should be limited to
preserving our heritage, to pay homage to the treasures our ancestors left for
us. It should not translate into a driver beyond its domain to force nostalgic
and historicist motifs on our design today. As with anything else we design, so
too must architecture respond to the world we live in today.

Hisham Youssef is an architect at Gensler, responsible for the firm’s projects in Egypt and North Africa.

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